Out of the Badlands: Part 2:8
Because I didn’t trust Kurt, having him around was a source of anxiety for both Sheila and me. On the one hand, there was a strange man moving about the property whose motives we had to take on faith until he proved them one way or another. On the other we had an extra set of hands and arms, a strong back, and for that matter, some hope of an ally in the case of attack. A couple of days passed. He bunked in the stall with the hay, proved a tireless worker in cutting grass—though I thought the field was probably about done for the season—and even won Boomer over. He took care to find something nice to say to Bobby every time he saw him, even if it was only, “Hey, big guy,” in the same tone he used with the dog, and he seemed to take pains not to approach us too closely unless invited.
One evening, when my bruises were green and yellow, and I felt almost myself again, I finally said, “I guess you pass. Why don’t you come inside for dinner? The bugs are bad tonight.”
He looked surprised and pleased, and followed me in. Dinner, such as it was, was already on the table. As he sat down, he said, “That’s a clever stove you have outside. It hardly takes any wood at all to cook.”
“Faustus made that. With as much work goes into every bit of firewood we have, we have to make the most of every twig.”
“Yeah, we kind of got thrown back into the iron age here. Maybe further back, since we don’t have a forge or the fuel to run one.”
Sheila came to the table, putting Bobby on her lap. I dished her up some of the food, pasta from our dwindling supply, and watched as she began sharing bites with the baby.
I asked, “Are there very many children in the town? I saw a couple of older kids when we visited, but as our visit was cut short—”
“A few. We don’t know why they survived the bad day, but then, none of us ever figured out why we survived it, either. Most of the babies that have been born since then haven’t been—” he glanced at Bobby, took a breath, and said, “’keepers,’ so there aren’t very many.”
I noticed that Sheila went very still at this, and I remembered that she’d lost at least one that way.”
Kurt continued, as though he hadn’t noticed anything, “And of course there’s no vaccines or antibiotics now except the outdated ones in the pharmacies that hardly anybody knows how to use properly, so people die. You’re a lot better off out here, not being exposed to all the germs.”
Sheila said without looking up from the fork in her hand, “It’s bad when people get sick, there. Nobody will take care of you, because they’re afraid they’ll get it, too. You’re on your own.”
“It doesn’t give you a lot of faith in humanity,” I said.
“I don’t think we’re very human anymore,” Sheila said quietly. “Either that, or we were all wrong about what it means to be one.”
“Faustus is a cynic about that sort of thing. But, didn’t either of you ever read Lord of the Flies?”
“In school. Hated it,” Kurt said. “That and ‘The Red Pony’. Doom and gloom. But I have to admit we’re not all that civilized when it isn’t easy to be so.”
“We are, here,” I said firmly. “Or else.”
“Or else what?” Kurt said, with his head canted curiously.
“Or else there won’t be a here. There are only a few of us, all relying on each other. There isn’t any room for conflict or people not doing the best they can.”
Sheila kept feeding Bobby. I felt bad for her. She certainly had done better since the day of the attack. She’d had to do my work as well as her own for the first couple of days afterward, and even now was doing more than she’d done before then, but she had to be remembering my earlier disapproval of her. Maybe she thought I’d throw her out if she didn’t work hard enough, now that Kurt had come along.
I said, “We’ll all be civilized, right? That’s all. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything worth staying here for.” I got up. “I hope the monsoons come soon. The cistern is starting to get low. We’ll all need to use as little as we can. I really wish this place had a well.”
“There’s a seep—did you know that?” Kurt said.
Even Sheila looked up at that, startled.
“It’s not much of a spring, but I bet we could do something, dig down a bit, put in a tub—something to collect the water. If we can keep animals out of it, even we only came up with a couple of liters a day, that would be worth having for drinking water.”
Sheila turned to me. “I’d like to help him with that. May I? It means leaving Bobby with you, but I might have an idea.” I’d not seen her so animated in Kurt’s presence before this, but perhaps the idea of contributing to the communal water supply appealed to her. Or else, she’d finally decided that if I was inviting him inside the house to eat, he was safe enough, and she’d moved him from the mental category ‘threat’ to ‘hey, a single man.’
“Uh, sure?” I said, “I’d like to see it—tonight, if possible. How far is it? And how do you suppose we’ve never managed to find it before? We’ve been living here quite a while.”
“I think maybe half a kilometer? It’s not too far to carry water once we have a cart. As for why you never found it? It’s small. It basically seeps out and sinks back in again a little way away. I found it by chance when I was following the other two men. There’s some cover there, so I stayed.”
“It sounds like good luck to me. Let’s go look at it now, shall we? Tomorrow, you two can brainstorm how to make the most of it.”